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Why Kung Fu's Olivia Liang Was "Anti-Learning Martial Arts" Before Landing Her Role

The CW star discusses her pride for portraying a "boss" fighter onscreen and the benefits of working with an Asian-American showrunner in E! News' AAPI Heritage Month Ones to Watch series.

By Samantha Bergeson May 26, 2021 5:00 PMTags
Watch: Olivia Liang Talks Celebrating Asian Culture in "Kung Fu": Ones to Watch

Olivia Liang fights with purpose.

As Nicky in the CW series Kung Fu, Liang is a self-proclaimed "boss bitch" during fight sequences.

"She's not fighting for no reason," Liang proudly explained in E! News' AAPI Heritage Month Ones to Watch series. "There's a lot of meaning behind these fights so it feels even more empowered knowing that Nicky is fighting for the less fortunate or the underrepresented, so just infusing that kind of emotion into these really badass fight sequences is just so much fun—but also the hardest thing I've put my body through." 

Kung Fu follows Liang's character Nicky, a young Chinese-American woman who drops out of college to master martial arts at an isolated monastery and returns to her hometown as a vigilante crime fighter. A family drama at its center, according to Liang, the series is based on the 1972 show of the same name—albeit with some modern updating.

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"It keeps a lot of the core elements of the original, this person who is using their martial arts skills to fight for the underdog," Liang noted. "There's a lot of social justice issues going on but obviously we've reimagined it with an all-Asian cast and this Asian family."

The CW

While it may seem Liang was a martial arts professional before filming, she was in fact resistant to learning the fighting style. "It was such a typecast for Asian performers," Liang admitted, revealing she was "anti-learning martial arts" for years prior to Kung Fu. "I would have people say, 'Oh you're an actor? Why isn't there martial arts on your resume?'" 

Working with Kung Fu creator Christina M. Kim is what convinced Liang to try something new. "She knows as an Asian person, not all of us know martial arts and not all of us speak a second language," Liang continued. "There is so little content for us, made by us, with people who look like us, but this is pushing the needle forward. We're really proud of the story that we're telling."

Liang previously starred on Netflix's Legacies before her lead role in Kung Fu. "The pressure that I felt was really to just make the community proud," she said of portraying Nicky in the series. "I'm really feeling pride that I get to learn a really rich part of the Asian culture [with martial arts]." 

Liang hopes that the series introduces viewers to the Chinese-American experience. "There are a lot of pockets of the world, especially in America, that doesn't have a huge Asian population. I think if people are willing to invite us into their homes and they can connect with us as characters just on a human level, it just brings more understanding into everyone's lives," Liang continued. "I think that's part of pushing things in the right direction."

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Nicky and the rest of the Shen family in Kung Fu are also strong Asian-American role models. "The way that we are portraying our community through this show is showing that we are not silent and we will not be made to feel like we are invisible," Liang stated. "We don't want to just be seen as this silent minority anymore. It's time for us to speak up and use our voices." 

The recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes has personally affected Liang, and as she described, made her even more empathetic to the experiences of other races as a whole.

"It made me so compassionate to the Black and Brown experiences because for the first time in my life, I was afraid that I would be hurt because of the way that I look," Liang confessed. "I had never experienced that. It's horrifying what's going on, but...it has just opened my eyes so much more to the fact that as people of color in this country, we need to have dialogue together because there is a common experience that we all have and we need to stick together." 

The CW

In fact, Liang feels that there is more of a "collective Asian-American pride" in the last few years. "I think for me personally, I feel more empowered than ever as an Asian woman especially," Liang smiled. "I feel so proud that as my job I get to play a badass Asian woman who is using her voice and taking up space and kicking ass. I think we need to see that now more than ever." 

As for what's next with Kung Fu, Liang promised that the series will only keep showing more authentic portrayals of the AAPI experience. "I'm so proud to be able to celebrate all of the different facets of what it is to be Asian in America," she gushed. "I just...I feel proud." 

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